Book review #7

It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review. The books I have read so far are entertaining but not really worth writing reflections about. However, lately I read Underground by Haruki Murakami, a series of interviews with the eyewitnesses of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack and even Aum Shinrikyo members.

Murakami decided to write it after wondering what the people were feeling on the day of the attack. He wanted to ‘give them a face’, so in every interview, the people introduced their professions and some parts of their lives. Almost all of the people interviewed recalled that no one seemed to know what had happened–they did not put much thought on the sarin packets and thought that everyone had been suffering a cold. Train attendants even used newspapers to wipe up the toxic spills, treating it like typical rubbish. More shockingly, a contaminated train had been running for over an hour before it was pulled out of service. They only  expressed mild surprise despite seeing many people doubled over, still unable to grasp the intensity of the attack even though a similar one had occurred 2 years ago. Hospitals at that time were severely under-equipped to deal with something of such magnitude– the doctors were lacking in important vaccines and generally were caught out cold.

Interestingly, after the attack that targeted an important form of transportation for the Japanese, a few expressed that they would continue taking the subway since there was no other choice for them. Though the survivors did suffer emotionally, they remained pragmatic due to the need to support themselves. In an essay written by Murakami at the end of the book, he condemns the viciousness of the attack, but feels that the Japanese will need to analyse the underlying reasons behind it rather than consigning it to forgettable history. He laments how the Japanese are also inept in dealing with disasters, as evidenced in the Kobe earthquake a few months ago.

What I felt disturbing was the relative ease the attacks were carried out. The sarin had been made from scratch in an Aum Shinrikyo base, and the perpetrators released the toxin by puncturing the bags with umbrella tips. There have been instances of explosives hidden in drink cans and even pens. It would be disastrous if the inconspicuous terror weapon were released during rush hour on the MRT, or even a packed bus as it happened in the London bombings. Though our police and civil defense units have been well trained in exercises such as Northstar, there will definitely be mass panic when it becomes real, so it remains to be seen how our emergency responses would be. It would be plausible that people will start to put the SG flag on their Facebook profile pictures, as a form of admittedly unhelpful expression of solidarity. Amidst the outpouring of grief and anger, it is worth noting that Singaporeans will certainly react differently from the Japanese– it will be mentioned many times, many years down if an attack really happens.

Though the Japanese have been aware of Aum for quite some time, they did not expect them to carry something like this on such a magnitude. With the current threat of ISIS looming around the region, I believe we are more on guard due to the recent attacks on Paris. Yet, what if the aggressors are from people we do not expect [ie non-Muslims] ? How will we, and the international community react? A lone wolf who hates the world or someone with borderline schizophrenia? Will we be reduced to mutual suspicion, since anyone could now be scheming evil thoughts?

I may be digressing, but Murakami’s idea of documenting those caught up in the attack was very informative–it brings a unique identity to each of the victims. Instead of being relegated to a series of numbers, these unfortunate people are like us–with their dreams, joys and resignation.

Underground has helped me to understand how such a terror attack could have happened and how the Japanese were grossly ill-equipped to react to the events that followed. Though Singapore may be able to face against such events, the main source of concern would be how the people will digest such news and the impact it will have in the years to come.